Nassim Taleb has introduced me to the Greek character of Procrustes, someone whose story is a brilliant analogy to the clumsy way we approach many of our most difficult problems here in the United States. Understanding Procrustes is a gateway for understanding how to overcome institutional resistance to making our places more productive.

Procrustes was a host who adjusted his guests to their bed. Procrustes, whose name means "he who stretches", was arguably the most interesting of Theseus's challenges on the way to becoming a hero. He kept a house by the side of the road where he offered hospitality to passing strangers, who were invited in for a pleasant meal and a night's rest in his very special bed. Procrustes described it as having the unique property that its length exactly matched whomsoever lay down upon it. What Procrustes didn't volunteer was the method by which this "one-size-fits-all" was achieved, namely as soon as the guest lay down Procrustes went to work upon him, stretching him on the rack if he was too short for the bed and chopping off his legs if he was too long.

Since the end of WW II and the beginning of the Interstate Era, we've embarked on a systematic program to increase total mobility nationwide by increasing automobile mobility. Certainly the interstate system was a major component of this, and if it had ended there, we would have a much different country today. But it didn't end there.

In addition to the interstates, we have built state highways, regional highways, inter-city roadways and intra-city roadways. Again, if it had ended there...

Of course, it didn't. At the local block level, we invested untold wealth converting our places to accommodate the automobile. And not just accommodate -- our neighborhoods could easily have accommodated the automobile before it was even invented. What we did over the course of two generations was transform nearly all of the traveled American landscape in an auto-only zone. Mobility in terms of miles traveled increased dramatically even as mobility options decreased dramatically.

Now we sit in 2011, keenly aware (at least the readers of this blog) that we have built more transportation infrastructure than we have the remotest chance of being able to maintain. All of this auto-mobility has failed to create places sufficiently productive to justify the ongoing expense of their own maintenance. We are a throw-away society, but it is hard to throw away two generations of infrastructure. What to do?

Many of us understand that our places need to be more productive. To correct our financial imbalances, we need to get a higher return on our public investments. Our approach needs to change, to mature in response to our greater understanding of the financially-precarious position we are in. We need to have more productive places. Stronger towns.

One of the simplest steps in creating a higher return in a neighborhood is to restore the neighborhood mobility options these places were originally built with. While this includes things like sidewalks, street trees and human-scale lighting, it also includes reducing the dominance of the automobile on local streets.

When streets are auto-only, the adjacent land pattern reacts by becoming less dense and less productive (a lower rate of return). When automobiles share neighborhood space with other forms of transportation, especially in places where those other forms actually dominate, the adjacent land pattern reacts by becoming more dense and more productive (a higher rate of return). We need more productive places.

Narrowing street widths to slow cars throughout neighborhoods is a critical strategy that we must begin systematically implementing. It is not simply the addition of sidewalks and space for pedestrians in these areas. That won't work if cars are still driving 45 mph (or even 30 mph, really) just a few feet away. What is necessary is a shift in focus that makes auto use in these areas compatible with people inhabiting the public realm. That is a dramatic shift, and it must happen if we are to experience financial success in proportion to our public investments/commitments.

Public safety advocates, particularly fire safety personnel, are generally resistant to efforts to narrow driving lanes and allow neighborhoods to become more dense. This is understandable since it is their responsibility to respond to fires. Taken to an extreme, if all houses were 1,000 feet apart and served by 100-foot wide roads, responding to a fire call would be simple and collateral damage easily contained. If our sole design criteria were our capacity to respond to fires, we would build things much differently than we currently do.

But responding to fires is just one of many criteria. With our deep financial constraints as our top limiting factor, we have to think differently. As we said in yesterday's post:

It would be tragic irony if we had wide, unsafe and expensive streets built to accommodate fire departments that we can no longer afford to staff.

Respecting the fire safety advocate's desire to protect us, and our desire to be protected, we need to challenge ourselves to find a way to provide high-quality fire service in an age of austerity. As Nassim Taleb has described in his book, The Bed of Procrustes, we have changed our environment to fit our approach for too long. It is time to change our approach to fit our environment.

To start that discussion, I thought it interesting to review how our fire fighting equipment and methods have changed over time. My intention is to demonstrate how, as technology and times have changed, our equipment has also adapted. As streets became wider, equipment became wider. But much like my Walkman from 1980 is a bulky and pathetic early-version of my current i-Pod, so will our modern fire fighting equipment be in comparison to what is to come.


This picture was my favorite - the old bucket brigade. We often forget that communities used to conscript all "able bodied men" to fight fires. Today we pay a select few, and of course use machines, to perform this duty.

An original fire engine from the late 1700's. These would be filled by a bucket brigade and then two people would pump the water manually through to the attached hose.

This is a larger version of the prior hand pump. This version could accommodate a number of people pumping on each side (more volume and velocity). The guy operating the hose is shown in many of the pictures I reviewed standing on the top of the platform in the center.

An early (1906) ladder truck pulled by a team of horses. The ladder was 75-feet tall. Horses were used to pull equipment to fires, but it was risky for the horses to race to the fire. A horse that fell would often need to be put down, not to mention delay the response to the call.

This is an early version (1907) of the conversion from horses. In this photo, a tractor is pulling a spray tower trailer. The pumps for these towers were often steam driven by this time and, with the tower fully extended, could easily reach five or six stories. Instead of steam, some were powered by a chemical solution (the ingredients actually sound like soda pop and mentos mix) that provided its own pressure and had an additional fire suppression quality.

Here is another tower, this one from 1925. You can see how the modern mechanics have all been incorporated into one vehicle. Notice the narrow wheel base. This is pre-Depression, so automobiles are part of the landscape, but the auto-centric design pattern has yet to take hold.

This is another pre-Depression era truck, this one a pumper. While the scale, materials and construction has changed, the components of this pumper truck are nearly identical to the pumper trucks used today.

The trailer on this rig is a steam-powered pump from that same pre-Depression era. This would be a companion to the towers and other suppression equipment. Again, the narrow wheel base is evident.

This is a fully-motorized tower. It looks like they took an early car and simply adapted it to pull the trailer. My reading has informed me that there was a reluctance in some places to switch from horses to combustion engines as the horse was deemed more reliable.

I was not able to find any photos of new equipment from the Depression through the early Interstate era. I suspect because there was not a lot of innovation. However, this photo from the 1970's shows a more modern version of the fire truck. 

Another modern fire truck. In terms of design, note the length, cab capacity and wheel width. This design needs a wide space as it is not very maneuverable. 

This was the largest vehicle that I found in my search. I don't have the dimensions, but it is not going to be turning any tight corners. The truck is pictured in a rural area, which may be its only natural habitat.


What this all reveals to me is that we have changed dramatically over time. Some of these changes were advancements in technology. Some of them were responses to our environment.

The greater question now is: can we continue to change? Can we use our knowledge, experience and design capabilities to continue to evolve to be more effective at fighting fires in an era of austerity? Can our approach to fire fighting adapt to the changing financial and physical realities of our places?

Or, are we stuck with a bloated and outdated approach, unwilling and unable to change? Are we held hostage to a rote set of standards simply because we lack the capacity to see beyond them? Are we, like Procrustes, willing to stretch people or cut off their limbs so that they fit the bed, or can we more logically change the bed to fit the dimensions of the person?

Tomorrow we take a fun look at how the American and British approaches differ and, in the process, reveal some concepts that might not be so scary.


We recently started a campaign to connect with 100 of our blog readers willing to give a tax-deductible contribution of $25 each, with the money raised going to produce a video version of the Curbside Chat presentation. The Chat program has been very successful, with more demand from communities than we can reach in person. A quality video presentation will help us spread this message, and so we are turning to you. In just two weeks, we're already down to 92 - thank you for supporting Strong Towns.